By Laura Zuber
Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, Middle East
WEST JERUSALEM, Israel – On September 29, Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel’s largest newspaper, published a farewell interview with the now interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In the interview, Olmert stated that “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories.” In addition, in order to reach a peace agreement with Syria, Israel will have to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
The most controversial element of Olmert’s statement is that a final peace agreement will require Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem. Official Israeli policy regarding East Jerusalem is that it is a part of Israel and that Jerusalem is the “eternal and unified capital” of Israel. Olmert argues that maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem would involve bringing 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier.
“A decision has to be made,” said Olmert. “This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”
Olmert’s comments in his farewell interview surprised many as he has long opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. According to Olmert, he was “not prepared to look at reality in all of its depth.” While this is the first time Olmert has stated these thoughts publicly, “his Palestinian negotiations partners have heard this before, as have the Americans and the Europeans,” said Mark Regev, Olmert’s spokesman.
Response from both the right and left wings of Israeli politics was swift. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party, denounced the prime minister’s comments as “insanity.” Lieberman continued by stating that Olmert was “endangering the existence of the State of Israel irresponsibly.”
Leftwing politicians criticized Mr Olmert for speaking his mind at a time when he had lost the power and credibility to make the territorial concessions he talked about. Aluf Benn, of Ha’aretz, characterized the comments as “too little, too late.”
Despite recently resigning as Prime Minister, Olmert remains the interim Prime Minister and, in theory, will continue peace negotiations while awaiting the new government. However, since Olmert is a lame-duck Prime Minister, some analysts believe that a final peace agreement will not occur in his remaining months. Rather, his comments are to prepare the Israeli public for a possible peace agreement under his successor.
For more information, please see:
Financial Times – Olmert Calls for Return of “Almost All” Territory – 29 September 2008
Guardian – Ian Black: Ehud Olmert’s Valedictory Jewish New Year Message is Worth Listening To – 29 September 2008
Ha’aretz – ANALYSIS: Olmert’s Epiphany is Too Little, Too Late – 29 September 2008
Jerusalem Post – Olmert: We Must Leave Most of W. Bank – 29 September 2008
New York Times – Olmert Says Israel Should Pull Out of West Bank – 29 September 2008
Voice of America – Olmert Says Israel Must Withdraw From “Almost All” of Occupied Territories – 29 September 2008